There's this scene in the "Willy Wonka" movie (not that lame Tim Burton one, but the kickass 1971 flick with Gene Wilder) where a corpulent kid names Augustus Gloop leans over into a chocolate river and falls in. He bobs around for a few seconds like a screaming beach ball, then gets swallowed by a vacuum tube. Sobbing, Augustus' Germanic mother begs Wonka in clipped English for help.
Now comes the delicious black humor part. As Wonka, Wilder replies to Ma Gloop in a deadpan befitting a blase executioner: "It's too late. He's had it now. The suction's got him." (You can watch Augustus' descent into chocolate purgatory here.)
I'm not quite as fat as Gloop (I'm working on it like a depressed Bridget Jones on a Haagen-Dazs bender). But today, I know exactly what Herr Gloop feels like in an emotional sense. For once again, I have been sucked into the Journalistic Vortex of Irony, and for the life of me I cannot break free.
Before I bury the lede, dig this: On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune published my last article for the Smart section. The subject: 6 steps to managing hired help (including, yup, how to fire people).
So in this piece I'm giving you advice on, say, how to ditch the hack housecleaner or hairdresser, and the article appears less than 100 hours after I have been given the hatchet myself. An excerpt is below, including the lede:
If that personal Mary Poppins you hired isn't flying, can you handle it? (Editor's Note: Tribune links to Mary Poppins, but I assume you know who she is.)
First the good news: You're the boss of your household and your service providers. Now the bad: You're the boss, and that means tough decisions on reprimanding sloppy work and firing come down to you.
My first tip?
1. It's a business: Running a business demands a different mind-set from informal situations. A service person gets your money; you get their work for hire in return. You assume the responsibility for speaking out if the work wasn't what you expected. That's the main point of your interaction, period. "There is no right time to fire someone, but it's about what's best for you," says Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois.
I have asked public editor Margaret Holt-a dear friend and a person of ample heart and intellect-to explain how the hell this happened. That is: How did this piece get past a phalanx of crack copy editors and subject editors, and no one stops to say: "Wait. Lou's just been canned. Is this in good taste?"
(I also want a correction. As this article ran on Sunday, after my termination, the designation under my byline of "TRIBUNE REPORTER" is incorrect. I am no longer on staff, so it should read "SPECIAL TO THE TRIBUNE.")
The article, part of a preprint section, went into production on the same day I got laid off, a Wednesday. I got the axe at about 10:30 a.m., well before copy moved into its final cycle of layout. The copy desk, God love 'em, routinely gave me grief when I did not check a fact or phone number. They rode me because they were thinking of the readers, as is right.
So I am puzzled, sad, and shocked this time that no one-perhaps for very good reasons having to do with the mayhem Wednesday-stopped to think about me and my feelings. And like a logarithmic equation gone haywire, it only multiplies another irony by 100: This piece is deemed fit to run, but my farewell "Recession Diaries" blog, my treasured chance to say goodbye to readers, is not.
I wish, how I wish, I were making this stuff up. I'd love nothing more at this time than to just hide, shut down and let the layoff blues blow over, like so many of my other colleagues are doing.
But just when I thought it might be safe to return to semi-semi-normalcy, begin a job search, or resurrect my Tribune Recession Diaries blog (it will go on, by the way) from a cardboard table on State Street, this happens.
And I was the last to know.
My wife Amy called me Sunday afternoon while I was at the airport in Nashville; I flew there Thursday for post-firing reflection and retreat. Now, I hadn't slept well since Wednesday; I've cried and raged and felt not unlike a soldier who wakes in a hospital bed to find a limb missing. 16 years and out will do that to you.
And finally, after some initial processing, I was starting to feel good about things, about myself, about the future. An Internet startup idea I have concocted has legs and a powerful backer; friends are emailing and calling by the hundreds with prayers and support.
Oh, how I want to go with the flow. But it's too late. The suction's got me.